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October 22, 2013

BEAM: The labors of language

— “When a thought takes one’s breath away, a grammar lesson seems an impertinence.” — Thomas W. Higginson

Rounded yet angled, the bumps of bone always stuck out on Ruth Davis’ wrists near the crease where her hand attached. Once, those fragile wrists helped shape letters onto paper.

But, near the end of her 90 years, the ability to create went away with the shaking of the pen and soon she became a mess of bones maintained by an invisible puppet master. You’d half expect her body to crumble onto the floor in a heap at any given second. Somehow, though, she carried on with a high head and a tender smile.

When the strings of life were cut from my Aunt Ruth, the world lost a talented writer. Like with so many artists, few really never knew it. No magazines ever published her work. Someone would have had to submit them for that to happen and, anyway, that was never the intent.

Ruth penned stories, not for fame or money, but because something in the writing process completed her. A want was fulfilled when she told of her country upbringing, a childhood where rides into town were as hard to come by at times as a good pair of shoes. The Great Depression assumed the role of a supporting character, while her eight brothers and sisters proved ample adversaries for her adventures.

In a shared bed while I visited her old Shaker homestead during the summer, she’d tell me these tales late into the night, transporting us back to her days of childish glee. Spoken in a Kentucky dialect, her style felt comforting, or comfortin’ as she’d say.

Proper country folk finished their verb endings with a strong “n” sound, one that smacked at the end like a man’s hearty knee slap after a belly laugh.

In my book, Aunt Ruth defined a great writer because she made you care. Scribes want their readers to experience an emotion during their works, be it rage, empathy or happiness. More than that, their tales and characters must connect and resonate to their audience through these feelings.

Ruth did this with ease. Her tellings flowed with imagery, and as a listener, all you could do is stand in the river of her wanderings and allow the prose to wash over you with bubbling warmth.

Given the writing climate today, I often wonder how my aunt and her tales would fare. You see, Ruth was a smart woman, but not necessarily learned — at least not in the way of the literary elite. Verbs might not have always been conjugated perfectly. Participles could dangle like Damocles sword.

Yet the imperfections fit. English conventions weren’t needed to structure her work. The construction, free and easy, did that enough without immaculate mechanics.

To some critics, this lack of flawless grammar and simple word choices would condemn my aunt and others like her to a realm of bad writing. Having mental red pens always at the ready, the detractors would raze passages sentence by sentence without truly ever understanding the words, much less feeling them.

There’s a haughtiness to these grammar Nazis, with their restraining rules and smug reminders. And, at times, they let this preoccupation with perfection ruin their chances of finding beauty in some wonderful written art.

Constructing a narrative shouldn’t be confined to the most educated of our society — or to only the ones who build their tales according to grammar’s rules. As my aunt demonstrated, word needn’t be flawless to be poignant and memorable.

As jack-of-all trades Stephen Fry said in his podcast titled “Language,” “There’s no right language or wrong language any more than there are right or wrong clothes. Context, convention and circumstance are all.”

Besides, that’s what those pesky editors are for once you get published.

Ain’t writing great?

— Amanda Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at adbeam47@aol.com

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